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AUTONOMY

By Michael Staniforth

Content Warnings: Body horror, rats.

 

Sarah’s body was disappearing, although she could see it perfectly well. She watched as fingers that were not her own waggled about on the end of her hand. They were there and not there all at once. They clenched, unclenched, waggled again at her command, but if she closed her eyes, they were gone, her sensation of self terminating as a fingerless lump on the end of her arm.

‘It’s probably nothing,’ Sarah’s husband Pete said as he paced the room, looking for his shoes. But then, he would say that. 

Sarah hummed in response, low and non-committal, then went back to working the digits.

‘You must have slept funny,’ Pete said.

Sarah poked at them with her other hand, trying to massage the blood back into them. 

‘Probably,’ Sarah finally said, although none of the feeling returned for all her worrying. ‘Probably nothing.’

‘Yeah, just give it some time.’

Sarah pinched at the fingertips, leaving deep furrows in her skin, almost drawing blood. There was no pain, no pins, no needles.

‘Hey, it’s not so bad,’ Pete said. ‘You can touch yourself and pretend it’s someone else.’ 

Pete shot a wink at his wife, which bounced off the steel of her scowl and lay between them, embarrassed and lame. Sarah would have slapped him if she’d had the power in her hand. She might have used her left, but she was unsure of the strength in her non-dominant hand. Then the moment had passed, and Pete had already kept up his smirk all the way out of the front door on his way to work. Now she had to live with the fact of that grin going unchallenged. 

‘Arsehole,’ Sarah said to the walls, shaking her numb hand at her husband’s retreating footsteps.

Despite her best efforts, Sarah could not convince the blood to flow in the extremities of her right hand. In the privacy of her own truth, without Pete’s expectations and opinions filling the room, Sarah could admit that, if anything, it was getting harder to move her fingers, not easier. She grabbed her phone from the kitchen counter, and immediately it flew across the room into the washing up.

‘Ah, fucking shit! Clumsy idiot!’

Sarah fished her phone out from among the dirty dishes with her left, now more dextrous, hand. The sink had not been full, so the phone was wet but working, but the screen was cracked. Sarah swept the lifeless stumps of her fingers across the screen, but it didn’t respond. Her fingers weren’t just numb, they apparently didn’t exist. Not that it mattered, she considered. She could call a doctor, but she’d just be told the same thing her husband said. Give it time; it’s probably nothing. They might throw in a ‘Could you be pregnant?’ for good measure. It seemed to be the only idea they ever had. 

What was she supposed to do with this? She couldn’t work. Maybe if it had been her left hand, but she could barely hold a pen. She tossed the phone back onto the countertop, as useless to her as her lifeless hand. As useless as her husband, leaving her with only one working hand all day.

No, Sarah thought, I’m not being fair. What was he supposed to do, drop everything, skip work, just because her hand had gone to sleep? No, that would be unreasonable, too demanding, wouldn’t it? He might have been just a little bit late for work, though, to help her out, it wouldn’t have killed him. Either way, Pete had left her on her own, and she was just going to have to deal with it.

 

*

 

By the third day of dealing with it, Sarah was unable to move her hand at all. It was a dead weight, worse than useless. She found it impossible to put her right arm anywhere without having to drag about the lump of flesh and bones. Her hand was becoming scratched and raw, yet still, she felt nothing. There were ways to work around it. She was quickly becoming adept at typing one-handed, and if desk work didn’t work out for her, Sarah could always join the circus as a contortionist for the skills she had learned in dressing herself with only a single hand.

What Sarah had not anticipated was the arguments, that her having an illness might be a point of contention between Pete and herself. But when she pushed Pete to take a little more of the responsibility on himself, what started as deep sighs, rolled eyes, excuses of ‘I’m tired. I’ve been at work. I’ll do it tomorrow,’ soon became something more forceful, even (although Sarah was loath to admit it) vicious. 

‘I’m not saying I won’t do it,’ Pete said when Sarah tried to broach the subject of housework once again. ‘All I’m saying is that doing the hoovering doesn’t really need two hands, does it?’

There was no concern in the question at all, no worry over something that was becoming debilitating. There was just the argument, a desperate need to be right he would never admit to. For Sarah, this was serious, and it was disabling, and it needed to be addressed. But to Pete, it was something else, a non-issue, an irritation, a temporary problem that would go away if she would just ‘give it some time.’

‘Is it really that bad? You seem to cope with it okay when I’m not in the house.’

Of course, what he didn’t see didn’t exist, like a baby without object permanence. Had he always been this way, Sarah wondered, or was the stress of her situation making her paranoid?

‘My body’s not up for debate, Pete! I’m just asking for a little damned support!’

‘I am trying to be supportive, I just don’t understand why I’m suddenly being treated like a slave in my own home.’

Sarah was silent. There weren’t words. There was a twinge of pain in her arm above her limp and useless wrist. She cradled it to her body, but it was like holding the handle of a broom, a lump of wood, not a person, nothing but a tool.

‘I need to see the doctor,’ Sarah said.

‘If you think you need to,’ Pete said. 

What did he mean by that? If she thought she needed to?

‘I can’t feel my hand, Pete! I can’t move it!’ she said.

‘Yeah,’ Pete said, putting up both of his hands in self-defence. ‘I said you should call. Jesus.’

There was a pause while Sarah fiddled with her mobile in her left hand, working up the courage for another fight.

‘Can you call, please?’

‘I have to get to work. Can’t you do it?’

‘It’s a bit tough for me, Pete!’ Sarah said, knocking her numb hand against her phone screen to demonstrate to him what she thought should be clear. Pete was already halfway out the door, letting the momentum carry him away from a conflict he had no interest in. 

‘Pete!’

Sarah grabbed him with her good hand, physically holding him inside the house in a move that she instantly regretted. The pair of them stood like that for a moment, which was a second of annoyance for Pete but for Sarah stretched out in an infinite recursion of all the possibilities of how he might react. Fortunately, Pete wanted to fight even less than he wanted to be late for work.

‘Okay, fine,’ he consented, taking his coat back off and dropping, near throwing, his briefcase on the floor.

Pete used the thumb of the same hand he held his phone in to flick through to the doctor’s number. He might just as easily have done it with two, but he didn’t, and Sarah saw that he didn’t. He did it with one hand, right in front of her, right in her face.

It took twenty minutes to get through to the surgery. With every minute, Pete’s face fell by degrees, a ticking clock of patience that was winding up instead of down. When finally, the call did connect, Pete tossed the phone at his wife and turned his back on the situation to get on with his own day. 

It was a very careful act of acrobatics for Sarah to catch and answer her phone without dropping the call. After rushing through the necessary pleasantries, Sarah described the problem.

‘Okay. First of all, is there any chance that you are pregnant?’

Sarah took a deep breath and counted to ten.

‘Can you hear me?’ the phone said.

‘No.’

‘You can’t hear me?’

‘I’m not pregnant!’ 

Sarah wanted to scream, but she couldn’t show herself to be over-emotional. She didn’t want to be dismissed out of hand. Of course, she couldn’t seem blasé either. Just the right amount of emotion, concerned but not hysterical. She couldn’t just speak her truth; she had to paint the picture he expected to see.

‘Is there any discolouration?’ the doctor asked.

Sarah thought that he might know if he would just look at it.

‘No. Nothing.’

There were more questions after this, but Sarah drifted through them without paying much attention. The answers were all ‘no’ when they should be ‘no’ and ‘yes’ when they should be ‘yes. Of course they were. The doctor’s tone said it all. There was nothing that appeared to be wrong. It was probably nothing. It would go away on its own. Stop wasting my time.

‘Give it some time,’ the doctor said. 

Sarah hung up.

 

*

 

There was a creature crawling around in the bed. Something slimy with sharp little pincer claws, pricking on the bedsheets and the skin of Sarah’s leg. It settled somewhere on her right side near her knee. She could hear the sounds of wet flesh and grinding bone on bone and knew what she would see if she lifted up the sheets. Her body quaked at the thought of it, but none of that motion shifted the thing. It just sat there, gnawing. Another motion shifted below her, another set of claws moving over her body, another set of teeth waiting for their victuals. It slithered down to her feet and stopped. Sarah was too scared to move. It bit down, and searing pain shot from her toe to her heart. Sarah ripped off the covers to see rats, rats covered in her blood, rats with little human faces. Whose face? Was that Peter’s face?

She awoke in a cold sweat. In the dark, lying still, laid out like a body waiting for autopsy – except for her pounding heart – nothing seemed real. Sarah moved the focus of her mind across her body, from the seat of her self, down her left arm to a hand that was there, and back up and down the other arm to nothing. A veil hung over that hand. It had slipped into another world, a world of darkness and nothing. In the deep of the night, Sarah thought she could will the rest of herself into that world, to be whole again. To slip into that void, to be completely alone in the dark, was a frightening concept, but was it so different to her real life? Where were her allies? Where was there light? Possessing little else, Sarah mapped out the part of herself she still had, checking again and again, like picking at a scab. Arms, left hand, legs, left foot, right foot.

Right foot?

She checked again. She moved her left leg over and scratched at her right sole with the toes of her left foot. She kicked, she scratched, she kicked again. This couldn’t be happening. She was tired; she was mistaken. Surely, this couldn’t be happening.

‘Ah! Shit!’ Pete cried as Sarah’s fist battered against his shoulder. ‘What time is it?’

‘I can’t feel my foot,’ Sarah whispered to him, showing reverence for the dark, hoping that this was nothing but a trick that sleeplessness was playing on her.

‘What?’

‘I can’t feel my foot!’ louder this time, breaking the spell of the night.

Pete flipped over his phone. Two a.m.

‘For fuck’s sake.’

‘I can’t feel my foot, Pete!’

Pete turned his back on her, a silent message of intent that came across loud and clear. ‘You slept on it. Go back to bed.’

He said no more, despite Sarah’s protestations, but made a display of settling himself back under the covers of the bed and sleep. Sarah did not sleep and knew she would not for the rest of that night. She got up, tried some weight on the foot, almost immediately fell, but she knew she couldn’t give up, couldn’t rest. Tomorrow, Sarah would need to be able to get about – on her own, clearly – so she had to learn now. 

As Sarah shuffled her way out of the room, Pete pulled the covers tighter over his head to muffle out the slide-thunk, slide-thunk, slide-thunk of her gait. He was just drifting off when a crash came from beyond the bedroom door, a thunder roll inside the house, an omen of ill portent. 

With a sigh, Pete checked the time again as he slunk out of bed and plodded over to the landing. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he saw at the bottom of the stairs, twisted into an unnatural knot, the unmoving body of his wife.

 

*

 

Sarah awoke to the antiseptic stinging scent of a hospital ward. She wondered about that smell, if it was designed to disorientate, to keep people away. Only come here if you really need it, if you’re willing to suffer for it. But Sarah wasn’t disoriented. She remembered clearly her foot failing under her, the rush of the stairs towards her, the slow-motion fall into lightless unconsciousness. 

‘Well, you gave your husband quite the scare, didn’t you?’ a doctor said, walking over to Sarah’s bed, giving Pete a smile.

‘I remember being pretty scared myself,’ Sarah said. 

Pete patted her on the arm.

‘Of course,’ the doctor said, not looking away from his notes. ‘You’ve been lucky’ – Sarah held back a scoff – ‘looks like nothing’s broken, but let’s have a look. Can you move your toes, please?’

Sarah glowered at her husband, her face reddening, her one fist clenched white.

‘You didn’t tell them?’ she said.

‘I wasn’t sure what to say,’ Pete said, but his words were short, and his gaze didn’t meet hers.

‘What is this?’ the doctor asked.

Sarah did her best to explain, speaking to the doctor’s raised eyebrow and tapping pen, his eyes being occupied with his notes, to Pete for confirmation, to the middle distance. An old woman in the bed across from her was listening in to their conversation with very little subtlety, tutting at everything that was happening, at faults that Sarah could only imagine. The old woman’s tuts and the doctor’s pen were a metronome to Sarah’s words, forcing her at pace through her explanation, causing her to skip important details, stick to only what the doctor might perceive as facts.

When Sarah was done, the doctor pulled out a tool to test her reflexes, scraped the sole of her foot, which she could neither feel nor move, pawed over her arm, which was gone now from shoulder to fingertips, and her leg, which, for the time being, she still had some control over.

‘We’ll do some tests, see what’s what,’ the doctor said, scribbling arcane nonsense on her chart. 

‘Okay,’ Pete said. Then to Sarah, ‘Happy?’

Sarah wondered how she could possibly be happy about any of this.

 

*

 

Somewhere, deep in the bowels of the hospital, there was a factory putting out this conveyor belt of identical doctors, Sarah was sure. Bland, reproduced boredom; bland, reproduced platitudes. There was an army of middle-aged men just waiting to be plucked off the production line and sent to tell her there was nothing wrong with her – physically. The pause before that last word was critical. There were tomes written within that pause. The most recent of these drab clones stood at the foot of Sarah’s bed, staring at her notes, like all the others, addressing the paper, never her.

‘So you say it’s moved to the other foot now?’ he asked.

‘No, I don’t say it has. It has!’ Sarah tried to take deep breaths before responding. She really tried.

‘Of course.’ He flipped the chart onto the foot of the bed, though he still found it more fascinating to watch than his patient. ‘Nerve conductivity is good. There’s nothing we can see that’s blocking any signals getting to the hands and feet – physically.’

‘And there it is!’ Sarah said.

‘You’re obviously...’ and this pause was longer and more weighted than ever ‘...in distress. Perhaps if you saw one of our counsellors?’

‘I don’t need a counsellor, I need a cure.’

‘I’m sure you would consider yourself a rational woman,’ the doctor said.

‘Of course.’

‘There is a lot of very good, very well-researched literature that suggests that state of mind plays a significant role in recovery.’

‘Of course, I know that, but...’

‘And I’m sure that what you’re going through can’t be easy.’

Sarah stopped talking. She knew she wasn’t imagining things. She knew this was a distraction, nothing more. And yet she said nothing. There were too many people on the ward, watching, listening. The tuts of the old woman across from her had graduated into sighs and head shakes, and Sarah knew that anything she said would just be more ammunition for her arsenal of judgements. But she knew also that silence was the right response, was the expected response, and she had no energy left to be unexpected. The doctor took her silence for consent.

‘Very good. I’ll send the counsellor to you first thing in the morning,’ the doctor said and made to leave.

‘Wait.’ Sarah arrested his retreat. ‘What are the next tests?’

‘No more tests,’ the doctor said, walking away from something no longer his problem. ‘Talk to the counsellor first, then we’ll take it from there.’

 

*

 

If counselling was supposed to improve her mental state, then Sarah considered her healthcare providers had made a serious misstep. Stress had climbed up high on her shoulders and was pushing her low into the bed, holding her numb limbs down, keeping her paralysed. Sarah could see no good conclusion to this consultation. They would think her mad, that much was obvious, and then they would stop looking for an answer, and she would be left to lie helpless in bed having endless, fruitless conversations with this total stranger. Or, impossibly, they would not, and she’d be back to square one with nothing but wasted time to show for it.

That was another lever that ratcheted stress’s claws on her shoulders: the wasted time. There was so much she wanted to do, so much she had planned for, so much that needed to be done. And here they were, wasting more of her time, keeping her ill rather than helping her to get better, to get back to her life.

When the counsellor arrived, she told him as much.

‘Honestly, Doctor,’ she said.

‘Please,’ the counsellor raised a hand. ‘James.’

‘Really, I’d rather stick with doctor. I’d just like to get better and get home.’

‘And why do you think that hasn’t happened yet?’

‘How would I know? I’m not a medical professional.’

‘Of course.’ The counsellor smiled. ‘I more meant, do you think there might be anything stopping you from getting better? Anything that might be preventing you from trying your hardest?’

‘Trying my hardest?’

‘Of course,’ the doctor said, his smile never broadening, never thinning, just the same throughout, eerily constant, right off the conveyor belt. ‘Your own mind is one of the most important tools you have for healing. It can make you well, or it can make you sick, just like a virus can.’

Sarah just about managed to prevent herself from rolling her eyes. She looked around herself, the doctor, searching for cartoon characters or bright colours, anything that might prove she’d been accidentally put on the children’s ward and was talking to a paediatrician and not a jackass. The counsellor continued.

‘I’m sure your doctors are trying very hard to get to the bottom of all this. But you need to be trying just as hard from your end. We’re all one team, on the same page, working together, you see?’

‘Yes, I understand what you’re trying to say, but...’

‘Good, good,’ the counsellor cut in. ‘So we agree, then. Now, I’m going to prescribe you something just to help calm you down.’

‘I’m perfectly calm.’

‘Hmm,’ the doctor said and leant over to take Sarah’s chart. As he straightened up, he dropped the clipboard, and it fell, corner first, onto her left hand.

‘Oh, I am sorry,’ the doctor said, placing his hand on hers in a manner that made the skin on her arm shrink from him. 

But she didn’t move her hand. She didn’t feel his hand on hers. She hadn’t felt the impact of the clipboard. She couldn’t feel a thing. Tears came to her eyes, and the doctor handed a tissue to her in a practised, disengaged motion. When she did not take it, he just left it by her hand.

‘Try to get some rest, and I’m sure things will start to seem clearer once you’re more calm.’

He scribbled down some notes with a self-satisfied and wholly unnecessary swirl of his pen and left her, just left her there, helpless and paralysed.

 

*

 

Sarah was covered with gnawing little rats. They weren’t just in her dreams anymore. They were there in the day, all the time, crawling, sneering and snapping at her with tiny, white teeth. Each one had the same featureless, pure-white human face, and they were all Peter’s face, and they were all her doctor’s face. They were predators, but they had no eyes in their heads, totally blind – to Sarah, to her fear, to her pain – but this only made them more effective in their persecution, more vicious in their attack.

Sarah could do little for herself now, relying on the nurses to feed her, clean her, and do their best to preserve her dignity. The shape of her hospital ward had burned onto her retinas so deep that she could no longer see it. Her world was a hazy white cube, into and out of which shapes moved to no purpose and with no effect. One of these shapes might have been her husband, but she could no longer differentiate him from all the other people doing nothing to help her. Right now, someone was asking her the same questions she had been asked every day since the paralysis had become complete.

‘Must we do this every day?’ Sarah asked.

‘We need to monitor your progress,’ the doctor explained.

‘What progress?’

‘Nevertheless,’ the doctor insisted and asked his questions again. ‘Can you feel any of this?’ he asked as he scraped his tool across her left palm.

‘No.’

‘What about this?’ and her left foot got the same treatment.

‘No.’

‘And this?’ Now it was her right hand’s turn.

‘No!’

Sarah waited for the next fool question, but instead, the doctor paused at her right hand, scraped it again.

‘Are you sure? You can’t feel that?’

‘No.’

‘Can you try to move the fingers for me?’

Sarah wanted to scream. Screaming was all she had the physical power left to do, but even that was taken from her. She couldn’t give them the satisfaction of proving herself overemotional, hysterical, even insane. She had nothing but the truth, and she repeated it now like a mantra, knowing that all the magical thinking in the world couldn’t help her.

‘I can’t move my fingers. I can’t move my fingers or my arms or my legs or my feet.’

But the doctor wasn’t listening. He was furiously scribbling on the chart. Sarah looked down to her hand where his gaze was fixed. It was almost imperceptible, but there was no denying it. Her fingers were wiggling, but she wasn’t moving them. It was the rats, pulling on her digits like a puppet. 

 

*

 

‘The doctors just told me,’ Pete exclaimed, running into the ward, a big Cheshire cat grin on his face. ‘This is fantastic news!’

Sarah could not return the hug Pete gave her, nor could she match his smile. There were tears in her eyes, which Pete took as being from relief or joy, but she did not say a word. Her mouth remained thin and flat, underlining the message of her eyes.

‘What’s wrong?’ Pete said. ‘It is good news, isn’t it? You’re getting feeling back.’

‘I’m not,’ Sarah said, looking Pete dead in the eyes, holding his gaze with great care, using his eyes to stabilise her own. She couldn’t look down. If she did, she would see the rats on him, creeping out of his pockets, from around his feet, over his shoulders, dropping down into the horde.

‘Well, that’s okay. I’m sure it will come back. You’re getting movement back, at least, and that’s incredible!’

‘I’m not, Pete, I’m not,’ Sarah said, her lips starting to twist and quiver.

‘But the doctors said they moved.’

‘They did.’

‘You’re not making any sense.’ 

Pete was now entirely deflated from his elation; he stepped back from his wife and crossed his arms, disconnecting himself from her.

‘It wasn’t me,’ Sarah said, keeping her voice quiet so the other patients, the nurses and doctors, couldn’t hear her. The old woman was asleep, and Sarah desperately did not want her to hear this, in particular. ‘They moved, but it wasn’t me.’

‘What are you talking about? Of course it was. You moved your fingers.’

‘I didn’t, Pete, I swear, I didn’t do it. I didn’t even try when he asked. They moved. They just moved on their own.’

‘Sarah!’ 

Pete was raising his voice. Sarah tried to silently shush him, but all she could do was purse her lips, and the sound that came out felt almost like a hiss. 

‘Enough is enough,’ Pete went on regardless. ‘Finally, we’ve got some good news, and you just want to... I don’t know. Can you please not do this? We’re all very tired. Can you just try and see this as a good thing?’

‘What am I doing, Pete? I’m not doing anything.’ At this, Pete rolled his eyes and nodded. ‘I’m telling you the truth, Pete. I didn’t move my fingers!’

‘I’m going to get the doctor. You’re clearly confused.’

‘No, don’t!’ Sarah cried.

She wished she could move; she wanted more than anything to stop him, to put out her hand and grab him, but she was helpless, useless, powerless. Yet he did stop. He had risen from the chair on her right and stopped stood by her bed. Sarah looked down the bed to see her hand was wrapped around his wrist, little claws gripping it, keeping it locked around him. She looked from the gripping fingers to her husband’s wide eyes.

‘That’s not me. I’m not doing that.’

‘You’re not well,’ Pete said, wresting himself from the grip of her hand. ‘I’m getting the doctor.’

 

*

 

A few days later, Sarah was sat up in bed sipping the water held up to her face through a straw. She had not learned yet how to coordinate herself enough to drink directly from the cup as the rats held it up to her face. Across from her sat the counsellor, still tapping his pen against his clipboard. When Sarah’s outstretched arm offered her cup to him, he looked at it for a second, blank-eyed, before taking it and setting it on the bedside table.

‘And you say you’re not doing any of this?’ The doctor pointed to her hand, the glass.

Sarah took a breath and focused on the words she wanted to use. 

‘I am making no conscious effort to move any part of my body below my neck,’ she said.

‘But when you’re thirsty, you can take a drink. You waved to greet me when I arrived?’

‘But I didn’t make any of that happen. I’m not doing it by my will.’

‘You think some external force has control of you? You understand why that’s hard to believe?’ the doctor said.

‘And you understand why I’m scared out of my mind?!’ Sarah snapped back.

But he couldn’t understand, couldn’t see the horror she saw. He went back to tapping his pen and reading his notes. 

‘You’ve made really great progress... physically. It’s very unusual when there’s still a... well, a mental block.’

‘It’s not a mental block,’ Sarah said. ‘It’s a... I don’t know what it is. But it’s...’ 

Now it was Sarah’s turn to scour her vocabulary. It was a cat-and-mouse game being played between her and the doctor. She was chasing his understanding, he, her obeisance. But she could find nothing, think of nothing that might convince this man of the truth of her lived experience.

‘It’s not me,’ she said limply.

The doctor took in a deep breath and let it out again.

‘I’m afraid,’ the doctor began, ‘that if we don’t see some progress soon in your mental state, we’re going to have to consider moving you to another ward.’

‘Another ward?’

‘The psych ward,’ the counsellor clarified.

Sarah could have screamed. She could have cried and wailed. She could have argued and protested. But she knew that was what he wanted, what he expected to see. A hysterical woman, proving everything he held to be true about hysterical women. So she said nothing; she did nothing.

‘Please leave,’ Sarah said and bowed her head, remaining silent until the doctor left.

 

*

 

‘I think it’s best,’ Pete said as Sarah watched the rats pack her bag, watched them move her feet around.

‘Best for who?’ Sarah said.

She wanted to run for the door, to escape this madness, to just keep going until she found somewhere she could be safe. But however hard she tried, her legs just kept on going on their own agenda. Her body did what others expected of it but never what she wanted.

‘Best for everyone,’ Pete said.

‘Because you don’t want to have to deal with me.’

‘It’s not... I don’t...’ Pete stumbled. ‘That’s not fair! I’m not a doctor, I don’t know how to help you!’

‘They don’t know how to help me!’ Sarah said. ‘You know what any of you could do if you really wanted to help?’ No answer came. ‘You could start by believing me!’

‘Honey, be reasonable. You have to admit, it all sounds a little...’

‘Crazy?’ Sarah did as much as she could with only her eyes to posture a challenge at her husband.

‘Strange,’ Pete said. ‘I mean, what? You’re a medical marvel? The only person who ever lived to have whatever disease this is? Logically, I mean, Ockham’s Razor...’

‘Oh, don’t give me Ockham’s fucking Razor like you’re the bastion of all logical thought!’ 

Sarah was shouting now, her face red, but her body still calmly going about its packing.

‘Why would I lie about this?’ she continued. ‘Have you ever known me lie about something like this? About anything?’

‘I guess I don’t know,’ Pete said, staring at the ground.

‘You don’t know? You don’t know?!’

‘You’re hysterical. I think you need to calm down.’

And there it was. She had allowed herself to fight and had reached the exact point she knew she would. She would have been better off not saying anything, saving her strength, trying to beat this by herself. It was clear to her now there would be no help coming from anywhere else. She was on her own.

‘Get out,’ she said through gritted teeth.

‘Look, honey.’

‘Just get out, Pete. Just get the fuck out.’

Pete saw the opportunity to escape an uncomfortable situation, and he happily took it. Sarah watched old eyes watch her husband leave, smug satisfaction curling wrinkled lips.

 

*

 

There were subtle differences between the room Sarah now found herself in compared to her view for the past few weeks. The scent of the air was slightly less acerbic, and there were pictures hanging around her, pastel hues of gentle flora that seemed to whisper, ‘Be calm, be calm.’

Sarah was not calm. Sarah was scared.

It wasn’t the fact she felt trapped that scared her. Sarah had been trapped for weeks now, perhaps longer, perhaps forever. She was already used to that feeling. While she had just been paralysed, there had been a link between herself and her body, even though she could not move it – indeed, precisely because she could not move it, and thus it did not move. That link was broken now. Her body was entirely separated from herself. It was not hers anymore; it belonged to something else, it belonged to them. Crucially, however, it was not unpredictable. It was precisely predictable. Sarah’s body did what those around her expected it to do. It fed her when she was hungry, cleaned her when she was fouled, it greeted people she met. In their world, in their rat world, there was far more reason in what her body was doing. In hers, there was nothing but fear.

When given tasks for her therapy, the rats completed them. She had a diary that her doctor had told her to keep. She had watched it be written in words that were not her own, powerless to put down on the page what she wanted to write. Help me. But what really scared her was that the words that were written were so reasonable. They spoke about her feelings during her illness, about her relationship with Pete, and they related these in the way the doctors had tried to teach her. It was everything they wanted to hear and nothing she wanted to say.

The doctor sitting opposite Sarah flicked through the diary, nodding with a half-smile and a self-satisfied hum. When he was done, he tossed it onto the table and began to take notes, speaking as he wrote.

‘This is very good. There’s some real progress here. I’m very happy with how you’ve gotten to grips with your illness in such a short time.’

Sarah said nothing.

‘From what you’ve written here, you harbour some resentment towards your parents. Would you like to talk about that?’

Sarah said nothing.

‘Your husband figures prominently, too, as a more supportive character. Perhaps that is something you would like to elaborate on?’

Sarah said nothing.

‘Is there a reason you won’t speak to me?’ the doctor asked.

Sarah said nothing. She was trying; she was willing her mouth to open, to protest once again that the writing wasn’t hers, that the words were not hers, but nothing was happening, no words came out. The disgusting horde of rodents had made its way up to her face and were nibbling away at her lips. Sarah’s eyes screamed, but the doctor did not look to see. Rather, he sighed to himself, scribbled a few more notes.

This is it, Sarah thought, this is your last chance. To look me in the eye and listen to me. I know we can fix this if you just listen to what I’ve said and believe me. Just trust that I know what’s happening to me and what’s happening to me is real. Just believe me. That’s all you have to do.

The doctor didn’t look her in the eye, didn’t think about what she’d said, didn’t believe she could know better than he did about her own world, her own life, her own experience. Slowly, the edges of Sarah’s vision began to darken as the rats skittered in around her face until all she could see, at the very centre of her vision, was that pen scratching away, writing down opinions on her sanity, signing away her last hopes of a reversal of her terrible fate. Until that too was gone, and she was left deaf, blind, speechless, with only her thoughts remaining to her. Surely those could not be taken away? Surely this was the limit of her suffering? Surely her mind would always be her own?

 

*

 

An old woman smiled as her nurse tucked the sheets in around her bed with the distant focus of a well-practised task.

‘You seem in a good mood this morning, Mrs Robson,’ the nurse said.

The wrinkles on the old woman’s face stretched flat by her broadening grin at the recognition.

‘Did the girl across from leave?’ she asked, staring at the now empty bed where Sarah had lain.

‘Yes, she’s gone to another ward.’

‘Good,’ Mrs Robson said. ‘It wasn’t right, those filthy animals with their paws all over her.’

‘I’m sorry?’ the nurse said.

‘Filthy,’ was all the reply the nurse got as Mrs Robson closed her eyes and settled into her freshly made bed.

 

*

 

How long had it been? Sarah had no way to know. Five minutes, five hours, five days. It was all the same. She was a single point of thought in an endless, infinite darkness that extended everywhere and yet was nowhere. Was she dead? Was her body living on without her, controlled by those things? What was it doing? What lies was it telling? What life was it stealing from her? Wake up! Wake up! Sarah willed herself to come out of this, to get back to the real world, to get back to her life. But she was awake; she could tell that. It was all she could tell. And this darkness, this nothingness, this lifelessness, was her life.

 

*

 

The car pulled gently into the drive, and Pete was immediately out of his seatbelt and opening the door for Sarah to get out. She had barely taken a step towards the house before he threw his arms around her and hugged her body hard.

‘It’s so good to have you back!’ Pete said as he constricted himself around his wife’s chest. 

‘Yes.’

‘When the doctors called, I was so worried. But you’re all better now? You’re sure you don’t still feel, I don’t know, dissociated, or whatever?’ 

Pete was talking fast, running to open the door to the house to escort his wife over the threshold.

‘They said you’d stopped talking. I’m sorry I didn’t visit, I just didn’t know what I could do.’

‘That’s okay. I’m better now.’

‘I thought something terrible might have happened,’ Pete said. ‘But when they said you wanted to come home, well... well, I’m just so glad you’re back to, you know, normal.’

‘It was just like you said. It was all in my head.’

‘That’s so good to hear. So good to hear.’

Pete took her coat and hung it up. It slid off her sloped shoulders without resistance. Everything felt right and natural to him, just as it was supposed to be. She moved perfectly with his movements, she thought with his thoughts, the very image of the easy, unchallenging spouse he carried everywhere in his head.

‘I’m so glad,’ Pete said again. ‘I love you, Sarah. You know that, right?’

‘Of course. I love you too.’

 

Michael Staniforth: Michael is an ex-academic turned engineer, a hobbyist folklorist and an amateur student of human psychology and consciousness. He has always had a fascination with the darker side of human nature and what we can learn about ourselves and each other from those things that we fear. He lives in the South East of England with his partner and enough unread books to fill him with a deep sense of existential dread. As well as with A Coup of Owls, you can find his words in the upcoming anthology Dark Speculations.

Twitter: @StaniforthMick

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